By Eleanor Crooks, PA Tennis Correspondent
Ukrainian player Lesia Tsurenko has said she withdrew from the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells after having a panic attack following a discussion with WTA chief executive Steve Simon.
Tsurenko had been due to face Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka in the third round on Sunday but handed the Australian Open champion a walkover.
The withdrawal was attributed to personal reasons but Tsurenko has now revealed it came because she was “absolutely shocked” by Simon’s answers in their discussion about tennis’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking to the Big Tennis Ukraine website, the 33-year-old said: “A few days ago, I had a conversation with our WTA CEO Steve Simon, and I was absolutely shocked by what I heard.
“He told me that he himself does not support the war, but if the players from Russia and Belarus support it, then this is only their own opinion, and the opinion of other people should not upset me.
“At the same time, he noted that if this had happened to him and he had been in my place, he would have felt terrible.”
Tsurenko’s comments come as Wimbledon organisers appear set to lift their ban on Russian and Belarusian players, with the International Olympic Committee potentially heading in the same direction.
Simon relayed that information to Tsurenko, who said: “He expressed confidence that the Russians and Belarusians will return to the Olympics and said that it will happen exactly as it is happening now in tennis.
“He also said that fair play and Olympic principles were not violated, but on the contrary. When asked if he understood what he was saying to me during the active phase of Russia’s military aggression in my country he said yes, and this was his opinion.
“I was completely shocked by this conversation, and already in the last match (against Donna Vekic) it was incredibly difficult to play. When it was time to go to the court, I had a panic attack and I simply could not go out there. I just broke down mentally, to be honest.”
Tsurenko added that she and her fellow Ukrainian players who she told about the conversation are now questioning Simon’s position.
“Everyone is also shocked,” she said. “We asked to organise a conference call with the WTA board of directors to raise the question of how a person like Steve Simon can be a leader in the WTA and what should we do about it.
“How can we understand further that our organisation somehow protects our rights. I just don’t understand how it happened in this world that such things need to be explained. It is very surprising and very painful.”
The WTA said in a statement: “First and foremost, we acknowledge the emotions Lesia and all of our Ukrainian athletes have and continue to manage during this very difficult period of time. We are witnessing an ongoing horrific war that continues to bring unforeseen circumstances with far reaching consequences that are affecting the world, as well as the global WTA Tour and its members.
“The WTA has consistently reflected our full support for Ukraine and strongly condemn the actions that have been brought forth by the Russian government.
“With this, a fundamental principle of the WTA remains, which is ensuring that individual athletes may participate in professional tennis events based on merit and without any form of discrimination, and not penalised due to the decisions made by the leadership of their country.”